As a cruise region, the Eastern Mediterranean encompasses a broad range of territories that include the Adriatic coast of Italy and Croatia, the islands of Greece, Turkey's Istanbul and Kusadasi, and the Black Sea, which features ports of Turkey, the Ukraine and Russia.
This region is increasingly one of the most popular in Europe. Its blend of ancient histories and antiquities -- along with more laid-back treasures, such as beaches and villages -- offers a fantastic array of holiday options.
The cornerstone ports for most Eastern Mediterranean voyages are the cities of Athens (served by the port of Piraeus), Venice and Istanbul. In other instances, cruise lines mix a bit of the Western Mediterranean with the Eastern and may start or end voyages in Rome (served by Civitavecchia), Barcelona or Genoa.
The following information features some helpful tips and hints for planning your own Eastern Mediterranean cruise. Also, learn more in our Insider's Guide to Cruising Europe.
Best Time to Go
Generally speaking, most Eastern Mediterranean cruises set sail from spring through fall, with the summer high season hosting the largest number of sailings and people. (Prices are also generally higher, due to demand.) Summer's the time, as well, when the region gets hot, hot, hot. Spring and fall offer generally lower temperatures, better prices and fewer crowds.
Winter cruising in the Mediterranean has become more and more popular because sunny skies predominate, and temperatures are moderate, ranging from the 50's to 70's instead of the 80's and higher. There's also no jostling with peak-season crowds, cruise lines feature longer itineraries with more leisurely schedules, and prices are more value-oriented.
The main ports of embarkation and debarkation in the Eastern Mediterranean are Athens (Piraeus), Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; and Venice, Italy. Some cruises sail roundtrip, while others opt for one-way itineraries, beginning and ending in different ports.
Beyond the turnaround ports, key ports of call along the way -- the daytrippers' versions -- include Croatia's Dubrovnik and Hvar; Italy's Bari; and Greece's Katakalon for Olympia, along with Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, Corfu and Rhodes. Malta's Valletta, south of Sicily, is another port that is increasingly popular on this itinerary. Bari is a popular stop for cruise lines like Costa and MSC, as some cruises actually embark and disembark there.
Luxury lines like SeaDream, Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal and Regent Seven Seas often offer itineraries that blend marquee ports with visits to more offbeat ones. Such destinations include Greece's Fiskardho and Gythion; Croatia's Split, Trogir and Sibenik; and even Montenegro's Kotor.
And, of course, as previously noted, many cruises in Europe's Mediterranean feature a combination of both Eastern and Western ports. Most often, ships will sail from Civitavecchia (which serves Rome) to Venice; common stops on this route include Naples, Santorini, Corfu and Dubrovnik. Or, your ship might head out from Barcelona. Then you'd likely call at Malta, Santorini, Piraeus (for Athens), Naples and even Sicily's Palermo or Taormina.
Choosing a Cruise Line
Most big-ship lines anchor vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean, at least during the warm-weather months. The Italian lines MSC and Costa also cruise there year-round.
One of the newer trends for some big-ship lines is adding smaller, pathfinder-style ships to their fleets, allowing them to offer more itineraries. Princess, for one, frequently posts one of its biggest, newest ships in the Eastern Mediterranean and sails it to the "biggest hits" ports of call, while smaller, more offbeat ships offer calls that mix the well-known with the exotic.
For a more luxurious experience on a small ship, SeaDream Yacht Club offers an upscale yacht experience that's almost entirely all-inclusive.
And for a sailing experience, check out Star Clippers.
Choosing an Itinerary
Most itineraries offer a combination of history, culture and beaches, making it easy to cater to a variety of interests. However, some lines or itineraries are more focused on history and culture, visiting places like Venice, Athens, Katakolon (for Olympia), Istanbul, Dubrovnik and the like. Other itineraries may focus more on beaches, water sports and the classic Eastern Mediterranean love affair with fun and sun. (The Greek Isles provide a perfect example.)
Athens, which is actually accessed via the port city of Piraeus, about a half-hour away, is typical of the cultural side of things in the Eastern Mediterranean. Highlights include the Parthenon, Agora Market, National Archaeological Museum, Kermikos cemetery (and Oberlander Museum) and the view from Lykavittos Hill.
Many itineraries feature Greece's little port town of Katakolon because it's convenient to Olympia, which is where the ancient Olympics were held, starting in 776 B.C. The site is about 40 minutes from Katakolon, and an organized tour is highly recommended. Highlights include the remains of changing rooms, gymnasiums, temples, an outdoor stadium and many other buildings. Back in Katakolon, save some time for a local snack (Tsatziki or fried calamari) in one of the oceanfront cafes.
Istanbul is another classic Eastern Mediterranean port, with an East-meets-West atmosphere that's unlike that of any other city in the world. Highlights of this Turkish treasure include the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Haghia Sophia church and museum, the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum and, of course, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, which dates back to the 15th century and features more than 4,000 stores sprawled over about 60 streets. Those with more Istanbul experience or time may want to try a cruise on the Bosporous, which sails to Prince's Islands, or a walk around Ortakoy, a historic neighborhood on the Bosporous.
Croatia's Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Treasure, is a great walking city for history and culture buffs. A walking tour of the walled city can easily include the Pile Gate, the entrance to the city; the 14th-century Franciscan Monastery and Dominican Monastery; the Synagogue, Europe's second-oldest Sephardic synagogue; and the city's wonderful cafe scene. (Try some seriously strong coffee or -- often equally strong and flavorful -- Croatian beer.) Dubrovnik also offers some nice beaches nearby, providing a typically enjoyable Eastern Mediterranean cruise travel combination.
Venice is certainly one of the most popular ports in the Eastern Mediterranean -- and for good reason. Built over more than 100 islands and involving more than 150 canals and 400 bridges, Venice is unlike any other city in the world. Highlights include: Piazza San Marco, home to the Basilica San Marco, the view from the Bell Tower, and several world-famous cafes; an inordinate number of art galleries with some of the world's finest collections; cathedrals and churches on practically every corner; views on the Grand Canal, both from the water or from one of several bridges; the Murano glass factory; and, of course, gondola rides. Venice veterans -- or those looking for something a bit less touristy -- should head to Guidecca, an island facing Venice. You'll get a quieter Venetian experience in a place known mostly to locals.
Those in search of more time in and around the water and less time in cathedrals will want an itinerary that features the Greek Isles. Quintessential Greek Isle ports offering great beaches, Eastern Mediterranean atmosphere and interesting history include Santorini, Rhodes, Corfu, Samos and Patmos. Mykonos is another of these ports but has an added highlight: it's the closest to the uninhabited island of Delos, a major historic destination. All cruise lines that call at Mykonos feature visits to that island, via shore excursion departments.
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief